Key Points about Metastatic Brain Cancer (Secondary Brain Tumors)

  • Metastatic brain cancer is cancer that starts in another area of the body and spread to the brain.
  • Doctors use biopsy, imaging tests and physical exam to diagnose secondary brain tumors.
  • Treatment for a metastatic brain cancer may include medications, surgery, chemotherapy, physical therapy and/or radiation therapy.


Sometimes, cancers spread beyond their initial site. When cancer spreads to the brain, this is known as a metastatic brain cancer or secondary brain tumor. 

Metastatic brain cancer causes

Cancer is caused by mutations (changes) to the DNA of the cells. The cancerous cells then travel to the brain through the bloodstream or lymph system

Metastatic brain cancer risk factors

Any type of cancer could spread to the brain. However, the following types of primary cancer are most likely to turn into a metastatic brain tumor:

Metastatic brain cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of secondary brain tumors include:

  • Cognitive (thinking) problems
  • Headache
  • Memory loss
  • Nausea
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body

Metastatic brain cancer diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose brain metastases:

  • Physical exam – your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors. As part of this, your doctor will also perform a neurological exam, including checking your hearing, vision, balance, coordination, strength and reflexes.
  • Biopsy – in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from the suspicious area. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan – this type of imaging test provides a 3D image of the inside of the body that your doctor can use to determine if there is any cancer present. Your doctor may use a CT scan to determine if cancer has spread beyond the initial site, as well as to stage the cancer.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – this type of imaging test uses high-powered magnets to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Your doctor can closely examine these images to look for any areas that could indicate cancer. Your doctor may use MRI to determine if the cancer has spread beyond the initial site, as well as to stage the cancer.

Metastatic brain cancer treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of the metastatic brain cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery – your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure to remove as many of the cancerous cells as possible. Your surgeon will work to preserve as much surrounding healthy tissue as possible.
  • Chemotherapy – you will likely need to undergo chemotherapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically. During this treatment, medication is used to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be taken via an oral (by mouth) pill or intravenously (through a vein).
  • Medications – your doctor may prescribe medications – such as steroid drugs or anti-seizure drugs – to help control the symptoms of your metastatic brain cancer.
  • Radiation therapy – this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
  • Therapy – you may need to undergo therapy – such as physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy – to help you learn skills to cope with the symptoms of the brain tumor.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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